Saint-Sebastian, Iconic Male Beauty
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Saint-Sebastian, Iconic Male Beauty

Saint-Sebastian so much reflects beauty and eroticism that the martyr boy has become an emblematic icon of Love and Death.

"The arrows have bitten in the young and perfumed flesh and are going to consume his body to the deepest through the flames of suffering and supreme extasy", Yukio Mishima in "Confessions of a Mask". These words of the great Japanese writer magnificently express the beauty of this martyr-adonis to its best. Saint-Sebastian has become the almost profane (though approved by the Church) icon of beauty in the Greek meaning. Of course, in the religious iconography of the Middle-Ages, nudities were doomed to Hell and considered dangerous temptations for the salvation of souls. The nude being closely linked to the idea of sin, all the damned were displayed in the altogether, with the clergy's benediction. Humanism enters the religious world along with a taste for bodies beauty, rediscovered through Greek and Roman vestiges. This is well the representation of physical, corporal and carnal beauty and not the philosophical idea of beauty. Facing the new change in society, the Church felt like a threat and had to survive by all means. As she adapted to the trend, she lost no faihful servants and eventually gained more at a time when atheism did not exist the way we know it today. 

With the Renaissance, the Church became more permeable to the beauty of bodies and world in general. Nobody will deny that the Renaissance dazzled by the beauty of body succeeded in giving nude its legitimate place in art and life. Christianism, at last, was no longer synonym with asceticism. The importance of daily reality, the interest artists took on Man, his body, his face and his environment were then fully understood. A great care for truth was now present in all works of art. And the angelic idealization or diabolic caricature were far away. On this privileged moment of Western civilization, impregnated with wealth and knowledge, so appeared a huge interest for the handsome martyr, Emperor Diocletian's officer and favourite, dying for his God, riddled with arrows thrown by his own soldiers. A myth thus arose around Saint-Sebastian, linked with Love and Death, Eros and Thanatos. A long lasting myth that no longer has a religious meaning but is the symbol of a carnal cult. Everything in this young man led to this ambiguous myth: the idea of physical force (he was an army officer), the idea of beauty connected with Eternal Youth. The arrows represent both the instrument of Love used by Eros and a phallic symbol. Of course, this iconography always is very attractive, the boy dies standing, fascinated, fastened onto the most beautiful column or laurel-tree, his arms above his head, his magnificent body offered to his tormentors. Very seldom is suffering presented realistically although everything tells the pain was unsustainable. The sublimation of the martyr's faith removes all traces of tangible reality, as if the ecstasy of physical beauty was illuminated by divine beauty. Love and beauty are often connected, not only terrestrial love (dying for love) but divine love. So many conditions seem to have been gathered in the story of the one who cured plague to trouble spirits and bodies. Didn't Mishima committed a ritual suicide? 

Through the representations of the martyr one can see each school and country reacted, artistically speaking, their own way, to the hidden and deep impulsions Saint-Sebastian inspired. Some are hieratic like in Flemish paintings, sometimes oneiric in Mannerist works. The artists voluntarily transgressed the truth. The Roman centurion thus became a pretext for the celebration of male nude beauty in a heroical dimension, and to meet the Pagan representations and their duality: Apollo and Dionysos. Saint-Sebastian is now a gay icon and the Saint-Patron of the gay community.            

Saint-Sebastian by Il Sodoma, 1525.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/91/Sodoma_003.jpg

Church of Santa Maria del Coro di San Sebastian, Donostia, Spain.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9f/San_sebastiano_di_san_sebastian_donostia.jpg

Saint-Sebastian by Antonio de Bellis, 1640.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/63/Antonio_de_Bellis_1.jpg

Saint-Sebastian by Basaiti, Santa Maria Della Salute, Venice. XVIth century.

Image source:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Basaiti_St_Sebastian.jpg

Saint-Sebastian by El Greco, painted in 1577-78.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/San_Sebastian_El_Greco.jpg

Saint-Sebastian by Saraceni, early XVIIth century.

Image source:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/SaraceniSebastian.jpg

Saint-Sebastian by Marco Palmezzano, 1515-20 (tempera and oil on wood).

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Marco_Palmezzano_-_Saint_Sebastian.jpg

Saint-Sebastian, 1801, at the Church of Fresnay-en-Retz, France.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/Saint-Sebastien_Fresnay_en_Retz2.jpg

Saint-Sebastian by Perugino, 1500.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0b/Pietro_Perugino_049.jpg

Saint-Sebastian by Mantegna, 1456-59.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Sebastia.jpg

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Comments (13)

Your article was fascinating, Francois! It's amazing that one figure could reflect the evolution of male nude representation over the centuries. The images were beautiful too. Great work!

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

A fabulous account of a simultaneously disturbing and compelling image that is so redolent with meaning. The piece is thoroughly researched and brilliantly written, and the images convey the shifting characteristics of this polysemic icon. Thank you for writing it, Francois.

This is a fascinating article just like all of the articles I have seen you write. I'm sorry I don't have any votes left to give today but I will come back to this and vote it up.

A great history combined with a magnificent work of art! Bravo my friend for an excellent job on this article!

Thank you for your kind comments.

This was a work of art in its self. Brilliant account Francois, I really like Antonio de Bellis work on Saint-Sebastian and struggle to believe how modern the work of El Greco is!

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

I think I like the El Greco version the most.

Thank you for your kind comments. Difficult to say which one I prefer, I love them all.

No problems in figuring out why he was iconic, lol! :) Great article and amazing pictures!

Those were very painful images caught in art.

Amazing... but then that wasn't in question. Another fantastic article!

Today is the feast day of St. Sebastian. Thank you Francois. I long to hear from you dear friend. Voted up.

Excellent share.

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